When Barack Obama was 11, his mother and grandmother took him and his half-sister Maya on the most American of family vacations -- a road trip that included Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Last week, Obama passed on that gift as he took his wife, daughters Malia and Sasha -- as well as Maya and her family -- on a four-day trip to two of America’s most breathtaking national parks.
"It was nice the entire family was there," National Park Service spokesman Gerry Gaumer noted -- not just the immediate family, but the extended family. "Rather than a presidential visit, it seemed more like a vacation."
Cynics may observe that the geyser and canyon photo ops provided middle-American balance to the Obamas’ summer vacation, a weeklong retreat on the tony Martha’s Vineyard. Who cares? It’s always a plus when elected officials spend time in an environment where mountains dwarf their accomplishments, they can’t dictate what happens in front of them and the wildlife is indifferent to their status.
According to some reports, visits to America’s 391 national parks -- the list also includes Washington’s National Mall and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area -- are down, and couch-potato syndrome is to blame.
Gaumer produced statistics that show, yes, visits were down to 274 million last year from highs of 287 million visits in 1999 and 1987, but they’ve also risen, as park attendance is "cyclical" and subject to changing travel patterns.
Some things don’t change in Yellowstone. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer had some sage advice for Obama on his trip to Old Faithful. As the Democratic governor told the Associated Press, he advised Obama "to watch his kids’ faces, and not the geyser, and you will never forget the expression on their faces when that thing goes off."
The same can be said for a teen’s first look at a moose with two calves or a toddler’s sighting of a mountain goat at the side of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road.
For adults, there is the quiet pleasure of watching time stand still as the sun sinks behind a snow-kissed ridge.
Enough already. I can write about sights and sunsets for only so long. So I move to the familiar territory of policy dispute, this time: How should Americans pay to maintain the parks?
The National Park Service annual budget is around $2.3 billion -- with a mere $186 million coming from entrance and campground fees, according to the NPS’s Brandon Flint. Many parks are free. The most expensive parks charge a per car fee -- e.g., $25 at Yellowstone for a week. Seniors can get a lifetime pass for $10.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar launched the system’s first fee-free weekends this year. The last of three ended Sunday. The idea was to give financially strapped families some economic relief -- and as far as that, the idea worked fine, although a purist would argue that the parks should be charging more for the sort of destinations people spend a lot to reach, not less.
Entrance to Yellowstone should cost a family more than a night at the movies. As for the lifetime senior pass, it’s a boondoggle and should be eliminated. Let retirees pay what parents with young kids have to scrape together. I don’t think many families would complain. For one thing, they’d be too relaxed.